NWCG issues guidance for infectious diseases on wildfire incidents

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It primarily addresses how to handle an outbreak that occurs at an ongoing incident.

burning out Legion Lake Fire
Firefighters burning out from Highway 87 on the Legion Lake Fire in the Black Hills, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has updated their guidance on infectious diseases that may occur on a wildland fire incident. The lengthy document, “Infectious Disease Guidance for Wildland Fire Incidents“, primarily covers the actions that should be taken after someone presents with symptoms at an ongoing incident. It does not address how to generally manage a workforce of firefighters during a pandemic before they are dispatched to a wildfire, such as requiring testing or addressing the issue of personnel working in groups. Nor does it suggest, other than hygiene, any different strategies to implement while suppressing a wildfire during a pandemic.

NWCGHowever it does recommend that all personnel get a seasonal influenza vaccine every year, and to keep other vaccinations up to date including whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria. We are unlikely to have a vaccine for COVID-19 until well into 2021.

The last time the NWCG addressed this topic in a substantial way was the document, “Infectious Diseases Guidelines For Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams“, last revised 11 years ago.

The new guidance goes into quite a bit of detail on how to manage an infectious disease outbreak at an incident.

The Special Considerations section is interesting:

“Planning a medical incident within an incident (IWI) may be challenging for the IMT. Additional planning and assistance from local resources and public health agencies may be needed to overcome some of the challenges listed below:

  • “The local health system may not be able to handle the influx of symptomatic fire personnel from the incident,
  • Transporting symptomatic fire personnel back to their home or other off-site facilities may be restricted due to isolation or quarantine recommendations,
  • Symptomatic fire personnel may not be allowed to use public transportation and may not be well enough to drive long distances until they recover, and
  • Other factors may complicate the situation including:
    • EMTs, paramedics, and other Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel charged with the support of the fire personnel may be exposed,
    • Incident facilities may be quarantined and/or require special disinfection,
    • The incident continues to require staffing, or
    • The event may require creating other clean facilities with non-affected staff personnel.”

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.